Kazakhstan offers a wealth of adventure for the intrepid traveller. Take a turn into central asia to explore this little-known travel gem
Text Sophie Ibbotson
If I imagine the world map without country labels, I’d place China, Russia, and Iran with ease. But between them, covering an area the same size as Western Europe, many would draw a blank. And that blank would be Kazakhstan.
The haziness with which we view Central Asia should come as no surprise. For 80 years, it was within the Soviet Union, and its emptiness (Kazakhstan is one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth) made the country suitable for three things: launching space rockets, nuclear testing, and growing grain. Foreigners were kept at arm’s length.
But Kazakhstan celebrated 25 years of independence last year, and it’s forging its own place in the world. Natural resources have strengthened the economy, it’s a key link in Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt, and this summer the country hosted Expo 2017 – the World Fair – in Astana.
I wanted to travel to Kazakhstan to fill in that blank space – to see for myself what was there.
My guide, Dennis Keen, is something of a celebrity in Kazakhstan. He’s American but fluent in Kazakh and Russian, and he presents Discovering Kazakhstan on national television.
He’s also a tour guide with Kalpak Travel, so if you do decide to explore Kazakhstan with him, your trip will be punctuated by Kazakh families jostling one another, pointing, and staring. A teenager, beaming from ear to ear, will inevitably break ranks, determined to get a selfie with this charismatic TV star. Dennis is used to it by now, and takes it in his stride.
Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, and yet, had you visited 20 years ago, you would have found almost nothing. President Nazarbayev moved the capital here from Almaty, and he had a completely blank canvas on which to build his modern, international capital. Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa designed the city plan, and the likes of Lord Norman Foster created the futuristic buildings dotting the skyline.
The building which most intrigued me, however, was the Khan Shatyr. Its claim to fame is that it’s the world’s biggest tent, and it cost an extraordinary USD400 million to build. When it opened, Andrea Bocelli performed the inaugural concert, and the presidents and kings of nearly a dozen countries attended.
The Khan Shatyr is, of course, no ordinary tent. Though its shape points to the nomadic culture of the Eurasian Steppe, it is definitely a 21st-century structure.
I’ve never been to the “beach” indoors before. Kazakhstan is a landlocked country (the so-called Caspian Sea is, in fact, a giant lake), which makes it all the more surprising. The sand at the Sky Beach Club was imported from the Maldives, and the pool imitates the sea. Lying back on a sun lounger, it seems preposterous that this is Kazakhstan.
Working my way through the different zones of the Khan Shatyr, the curiosities kept on coming.
Altyn Emel’s highlight is its singing sand dunes, a curious natural phenomenon. When the wind blows across the dune (or someone walks on it), it makes a whistling sound. The noise is quite haunting, even when you know what it is.
It was late afternoon when I reached the dunes. The air temperature felt cool. Given the steepness of the dunes, this was no bad thing.
Climbing on sand dunes is hot, tiring business. But when you do reach the top, the entirety of Altyn Emel spreads out before you. Light and shadow fall in a patchwork.
Looking towards the mountains on the horizon there is only pristine wilderness, not a person or building in sight. Kazakhstan is no longer a blank space on my mental map; it is a place of untold beauty imprinted on my mind.
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Related: Walking the Wilds
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 127, 2017.